It wasn't pretty. It was pretty darned ugly as a matter of fact, far from the type of opener most fans wanted to see. After watching the recording again of MSU's 34-16 victory, several things became obvious to me that eluded my attention when watching the game live. Other problems were blatantly clear the first go around.
Here were my main takeaways:
Way too conservative
Call it a lack of concentration or a lack of execution from the players if you want, but the coaches get a D minus for game one. We'll start with Mullen, who called one of his worst games yet. Look I get it, he wanted to hold back and not show his hand to LSU. But his entire offensive system is based off running the quarterback and he abandoned it. He finally loosened the reigns in the second half a little and Dak hit some big plays, but that should have happened from the start. When you run the QB the entire offense opens up because the defense has to respect that every single play. I'm fine with conserving Dak's legs and body more this season, but one carry the whole first half should never happen again.
On to the defense. We still can't get a coordinator who plays press coverage on the outside. They played off receivers the majority of the night and that made for some way to easy throws for Nick Mullens. Combine that with very few blitzes and you have a disaster, as we saw. You can't give the QB all day to throw and play soft coverage too, that combination doesn't work at any level of football. Was Diaz holding back on d for LSU too? Probably. But his lack of in-game adjustments and bend but don't break mentality is a concern for me.
Starting d-line shined
On a more positive note, I really liked what I saw from Chris Jones, Nick James, Ryan Brown, and A.J. Jefferson. Jefferson in particular had a really impressive showing. That play where he ran smooth through Southern's running back and sacked the QB was a thing of football beauty. He finished the night with 7 tackles and 2 sacks and lived in the back field all game long. He and Ryan Brown both got after the quarterback and I think as a tandem they may be the best ends MSU has had in quite some time. Chris Jones and Nick James both stuffed Southern's attempts to run the ball up the middle. Those two started fast but lost some energy as the game wore on. Overall these four had really good nights. The only problem is the drop off from them to the second string is a big one.
Secondary hasn't improved
Taveze Calhoun was out with an injury which didn't help matters, but MSU struggled all night in pass coverage. Tolando Cleveland consistently got beat and I should probably throw the linebackers in this conversation as well because the middle of the field was torn apart by Mullens. As I mentioned earlier, Diaz's soft play calling didn't help the situation any but the corners, safeties, and everybody responsible have to be held to a higher standard. Giving up over 300 yards to Southern Miss isn't what you want to see. If Southern can do it, Texas A&M and the rest of the SEC offenses can certainly do it. We were all hopeful this problem had been corrected over the offseason but the small sample size we've seen so far doesn't lead to much optimism.
Mixed bag at running back
Ashton Shumpert struggled from start to finish. His fumble inside the five was nothing but a lack of concentration and slowing down thinking he would stroll into the end zone untouched. Shump really didn't have many productive runs outside of that one good run in the second half. Although he earned that playing time with the finish last year and a solid fall camp, I would have liked Aeris Williams and Dontavian Lee to see meaningful reps. Lee as a bigger back especially should see more time than he did in this game. Behind an offensive line still learning how to gel and play as a unit, his power is exactly what the run game needs. All that being said, Brandon Holloway made a statement tonight. His kick return for a TD was the play of the game and at running back he hit the hole quickly and ran with excellent vision. He'll never be a back that gets 15 carries but he's a nice asset to have when the offense needs a spark.
Don't play this game again, ever
Seriously, nothing good can come from it. You have nothing to gain and everything to lose. Give Southern credit. They upgraded their talent by a mile since last season and they threw the kitchen sink trying to win this game. Had it not been for the blocked punt, goal line stand, and Holloway's return, who knows what would have happened. That was one of the most difficult games I've ever sat through as a fan, and the 9 p.m. kick made it a billion times worse. We survived, we're 1-0, but please... let's not continue this series. An in-state rival is always a dangerous opponent, especially when they have nothing to lose.
That's the gist of what I came away with. I didn't go into Dak's off night or the receivers' underwhelming performance, because frankly I'm not worried about them at all. Everybody had to shake the rust off. Now it's go time with LSU coming to town looking for revenge. Let's hope the first game jitters are out of the way and a different team shows up next Saturday night.